Jessie Tarbox Beals was a hustler. She was the first woman to be hired as a staff photographer at an American newspaper, The Buffalo Courier, in 1902. She lugged around 50 pounds of photography equipment while wearing a whalebone corset and an enormous hat. When photographers were locked out of a murder trial, she climbed up to an open transom in the courtroom and snapped a shot that got her a five-column front-page feature. In other words, she hustled. A relentless self-promoter, she taught her husband how to develop her photographs so that he could be her assistant
Of photojournalism, Beals states in The Focus, St. Louis, Missouri, 1904:
Newspaper photography as a vocation for women is somewhat of an innovation, but is one that offers great inducements in the way of interest as well as profit. If one is the possessor of health and strength, a good news instinct . . . a fair photographic outfit, and the ability to hustle, which is the most necessary qualification, one can be a news photographer.
Born Jessie Tarbox in 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Beals began photographing as a hobby at the age of 18. She made a name for herself documenting the exhibits at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, after which she and her husband moved to New York City and set up a successful photography studio, taking portraits of many prominent figures, including Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt. She also documented life in New York, photographing subjects, rich and poor, throughout the city.
In 1917, Beals separated from her husband and moved in with a friend in Greenwich Village with her daughter, where she opened The Village Art Gallery and sold prints and postcards of her work while taking portraits of the neighborhood writers and artists in Greenwich Village’s bohemian heyday. As a single mother, she also continued to hustle to maintain a steady income, leveraging the fact that she was a “woman photographer” and using her keen eye to follow news stories outside of New York.
In his biography of Beals, Alexander Alland, Sr. quotes a 1906 New York Heraldarticle that states that:
Mrs. Beals is the only woman in the world who has gone to the racetracks as a professional camera operator snapping highspeed automobiles tearing along a cross country speedway in a breathless effort to capture a record. In all the turmoil of the roaring engines and the yelling crowds, she remains unmoved as she hurries about from place to place to get characteristic pictures of the men and the machines.
Sadly, Beals hit hard times during the depression. Broke, and her body broken by a lifetime of hustling, Beals died a pauper at Bellevue Hospital in 1942 at the age of 71. A Library of Congress biography states that Beals “deserves recognition for her pioneering role in news photography, the excellent quality of her photographs, her struggle to overcome gender-based career obstacles, and her life-long devotion to her career. Her courageous example encouraged other women to pursue photography.”
Just across the river, Alice Austen, born on Staten Island in 1866, was a contemporary of Beals, and was also destined to become one of the first female American photographers.
Austen was abandoned by her father before she was born and grew up using her mother’s maiden name in her maternal grandparents’ home, Clear Comfort, which is now known as the Alice Austin House Museum, a national historic landmark. Austen’s uncle Oswald, a sea captain, taught his ten-year-old niece how to use a camera that he purchased during his travels. Austen immediately showed a natural skill for photography. Austen’s other uncle Peter, a professor of chemistry, taught his niece how to develop and print from glass plates, and both uncles set up a darkroom for Austin where she would spend house developing and printing her photographs.
Austen spent a good part of her life traveling, always carrying her cumbersome photography equipment and documenting the people and places she saw. She became an active and prominent member of Staten Island society until the 1920’s, when her family’s fortune began to wane and then lost everything in the 1929 market crash.
Like Beals, Austen eventually ended up a pauper, living in a poor house, until Loren McMillen of the Staten Island Historical Society rescued a cache of her old glass plate negatives and brought them to the attention of Oliver Jensen, who placed her photos in Life Magazine, Holiday, and in a book entitled The Revolt of Women. Proceeds from the sale of her photographs allowed her to move into a nursing home, where she died peacefully in her sleep in 1952. “Alice’s work is significant because of its high quality, its range, and its level of expression. For her the creative process was one of composition and selection which allowed her subject matter to speak for itself,” states the Austen House website.
Indeed, Austen’s photographic subjects, like those of Beals, were diverse: her friends and family, immigrants, gardens, street people, views of New York harbor, yet they all tell vivid, unspoken stories. Her work is also significant in that many of her photos explore themes of femininity and gender roles, depicting her coterie of female friends “fraternizing,” and even, according to a New York Times review of her photographs “hammed it up herself, posing in men’s clothes or short skirts (above the ankle!) and smoking cigarettes.”
Jessie Tarbox Beals and Alice Austen led parallel lives that very well may have intersected at one time or another. Together and apart, they left behind a body of work that gives us an invaluable glimpse of New York City (and beyond) at the turn of the twentieth century. This description of Austen’s legacy from the Austen House website applies equally to the legacy Beals left behind, “With a natural instinct for photojournalism some forty years before that word was coined, she saw the world with a clear eye and photographed the people and places in it, as they actually appeared, giving us a visual record of more than fifty years of social history.”
Jessie Tarbox Beals:
Alland, Alexander. Jessie Tarbox Beals, First Woman News Photographer. New York: Camera/Graphic Press, 1978.
Novotny, Ann, and Alice Austen. Alice’s World: The Life and Photography of an American Original, Alice Austen, 1866-1952. Old Greenwich, Conn: Chatham Press, 1976.